A Polymath Adds to His Profile

Leon Botstein Takes on Yet Another Job –– Orchestra Savior

By Michael S. Markowitz

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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Leon Botstein doesn’t look the part of a jet-setting international orchestra conductor. Dressed in a baggy black suit for an appearance last month at the helm of his American Symphony Orchestra, the bespectacled, balding 55-year-old seemed more like a frumpy professor than someone whose resume includes guest stints with important orchestras on three continents.

In fact, though he records with some of Europe’s top ensembles and directs the American Symphony, the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra and the innovative Bard Music Festival, Botstein considers himself first and foremost a scholar and an academic. Since 1975, he has been president of Bard College in Annadale-on-Hudson, N.Y., building it into a strong liberal- and performing-arts institution. He is also the author and editor of several books on music, culture and society. But his scholarly inclination is perhaps best reflected in his idiosyncratic approach to programming concerts: A Botstein-led program is sure to contain at least one rarely heard piece, carefully dusted off and brought back to life to illustrate a well-chosen theme or historical thread. In the 2003-04 season alone, the American Symphony’s schedule reads like a musical Jeopardy! game, with pieces slotted imaginatively into categories such as “Spiritual Romanticism” and “Opera Scandals of the 1920s.”

“I don’t study music or write about music in ways that are detached from its performance,” Botstein said in a recent telephone interview. “The scholarship I do is integrated into the performance.”

Last month, Botstein brought his singular ideas about music-making to Israel, where he led his first subscription concert as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. With this latest appointment, Botstein adds a new role to his polymath’s portfolio: orchestra savior.

Botstein was hired, with the backing of the Jerusalem Symphony’s musicians and Israeli cultural officials, to try to rescue the forgotten stepchild of Israeli orchestras after it had been all but abandoned by its main backer, the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Early this year, the Jerusalem Symphony briefly stopped paying its musicians, even though they agreed to 20% salary cuts to try to save the orchestra. The orchestra was placed in receivership, its chairman resigned amid accusations of financial mismanagement and going-out-of-business signs went up on the concert hall.

In July, however, Botstein met with broadcasting authority officials and orchestra leaders while on a visit to Israel. After winning pledges of support from Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky and his predecessor, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert, Botstein agreed to take on the burden of attempting to revive the orchestra.

“This is a 65-year-old orchestra that is Israel’s second orchestra and the country’s radio orchestra. It’s a major part of Israel’s cultural history and cultural life, and when the musicians asked me to help, I felt a moral obligation,” Botstein said. “I wouldn’t have taken on such an assignment unless it was Israel.”

Indeed, Botstein, a self-described secular Jew, has little patience for artists who have canceled appearances in Israel because of objections to the government’s policy toward the Palestinians.

“I’ve been a lifelong believer in Israel, and I have also been severely critical of many of its policies, which simply puts me in league with thousands and millions of other Israelis,” he said. “The point of working in Israel is to support its potential and future as a secular democracy. The only countries that deserve to be boycotted are countries that have authoritarian regimes where there is no freedom, no opportunity for artistic expression.”

Botstein will also share his interest in Jewish culture with New York audiences this season. His American Symphony Orchestra will present “Jews and Vienna, City of Music,” an exploration of music by 19th- and 20th-century Jewish composers who had assimilated into Viennese society, at Avery Fisher Hall on February 8.

Even for someone with as many obligations as Botstein, adding a new podium means that something else has to give way. Botstein has dropped all of his European guest-conducting appearances, and he intends to schedule his Jerusalem visits around lulls in the Bard calendar. The rest of the time, the Jerusalem Symphony will be in the hands of its resident conductor and principal guest conductor.

Still, running a college and serving as artistic leader of two orchestras is more than most people can handle. Botstein says his secret is simple — outside of work and his family, he has no life.

“I don’t have hobbies, I don’t have other interests, I don’t travel for fun,” he said. “My life, far from being complicated, is extremely routine. I’m completely absorbed with what I do.”

Those who know Botstein say he is exaggerating, but not by much. Botstein really is single-minded about his professional pursuits.

“There are a lot of people who question how anyone can handle as many activities as well as Leon,” said David E. Schwab II, the longtime chairman of Bard’s board of trustees, “The answer is, he has an incredible mind and perhaps a unique amount of energy.”

Botstein was born in Zurich to Polish-Russian Jewish parents and raised in New York. He studied violin with Roman Totenberg and studied conducting with James Yannatos, Richard Wernick and Harold Farberman. At age 25, he became the youngest-ever president of an American college when he was tapped to head Franconia College in New Hampshire. Now, after nearly three decades at Bard, he is one of the longest-serving presidents of an American college.

Botstein’s determination to enhance Bard’s reputation as a performance center drove the development of the widely acclaimed new Richard B. Fisher Center, an on-campus theater and concert hall complex designed by the celebrity architect Frank Gehry. Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker’s esteemed architecture critic, marveled that a small college could construct such a distinctive facility at a time when arts officials 90 miles to the south, in New York City, continue to bicker over the future of Lincoln Center’s outmoded buildings: “Bard, under the leadership of Leon Botstein, has ended up with what may be the best small concert hall in the United States.”

If Botstein has a shortcoming, it may be his ability to execute his musical ideas on stage. Critics occasionally complain that although his conceptual programs with the New York-based American Symphony are fascinating, the actual performances lack polish and subtlety; Botstein’s conducting can be long on drive and enthusiasm but short on finesse. He has nevertheless produced a number of well-received recordings with the American Symphony and with other orchestras, among them a recent Telarc release of Richard Strauss’s infrequently staged opera “Die ägyptische Helena” with soprano Deborah Voigt.

In Jerusalem, where he has a three-year contract, Botstein’s first challenge involves shoring up the orchestra’s finances and morale. Before taking over, he obtained funding commitments through 2004 from the broadcast authority, and he intends to seek financial support from Jews both in Israel and elsewhere to give the orchestra a cushion. Plans to air a series of Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra concerts on National Public Radio in the United States in May should help. Botstein is also working to strengthen the orchestra’s ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Botstein must also try to carve out a niche for an orchestra that has long been eclipsed by the internationally known Israel Philharmonic. Botstein said he wants the Jerusalem Symphony to provide Jerusalem audiences with opportunities to hear the great classics and deserving but neglected works, to promote Israeli performers and composers, and to help educate young musicians.

Although Botstein’s influence on the Jerusalem orchestra will not be fully apparent for some time, his first subscription program, performed last month, clearly had his fingerprints all over it. The concert was scheduled to conclude with a war horse, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. But while another conductor might have paired that work with a popular concerto, Botstein chose three less well-known pieces by other composers, all of them based on ideas by Beethoven and one of them written by an Israeli. The concert was titled “The Legacy of Beethoven.”

Ultimately, Botstein said he sees his work in Jerusalem as part of an endeavor to restore the city’s stature as the jewel of a peaceful Middle East.

“When peace comes finally, Jerusalem will return to its position as one of the three or four most sought-after destinations for Christians, Jews and Muslims,” he said. “Imagine a worldwide broadcast of something like Bach’s B-Minor Mass from outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. What an emotional experience that would be for people of so many faiths. The [Israel Philharmonic] speaks only to the State of Israel, but Jerusalem, and its orchestra, can speak to the world’s three great religions.”

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